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  • Trisha Bhujle

The Warrior of the Mumbai Monsoons

September

It was hardly the crack of dawn, yet I was completely soaked.


Not expecting the morning drizzle to pick up so suddenly, I snapped open my umbrella and stuffed my bags with potatoes and fresh coconuts as rain began to drench the Santa Cruz West Market. Surrounding me were dozens of other farmers and craftsmen rapidly packing up tables that had once brimmed with fruits and vegetables, handcrafted pots and pans, and carefully-stitched saris and kurtas. Peddlers quickly wheeled their trolleys out of the market as hundreds of distraught mothers called for their children and teenagers raced down the road on their bicycles. Reaching into my pocket, I grabbed the last of my rupees and hastily shoved them into the hands of the older woman standing behind the booth. Before I could even thank her for the food, I too was swept away in the mass of frantic shoppers heading for the market’s exit, desperate to escape the flooding streets of Mumbai.


Once I reached the main road, the now pouring rain was accompanied by even stronger winds. My battered umbrella, hardly able to withstand even a mild breeze, didn’t even make it to the end of the block before it suddenly ripped into two. Horrified, I ran in the rising water as my bags of potatoes and coconuts kept slapping against my ribs. Our streetside drainage systems were clearly not working as they should have. Blocked by construction, they prevented the water from going anywhere but up. Up my socks, up my ankles. I winced and ran even faster.


When I arrived at our apartment and flung open the door, panting and covered in rain and mud, Aai immediately ran to me and cradled my face in her hands. She didn’t have to say anything – her expression said it all. Thank goodness you’re okay. She helped me dry up with a worn linen cloth and handed me a cup of tea as I shivered on the bed. Looking closer, I began to notice the wrinkles on her forehead and the dark circles under her eyes – both scars of stress etched on her face. None of us had expected the summer monsoons to last so late into the year, and Aai especially seemed to have succumbed to the gloom of this year’s abnormally heavy rains.


As I sat on my bed and slowly sipped my tea, I thought back to the elderly woman whose potatoes and coconuts were now sprawled over our kitchen’s counters. Her face had been doused in water and her wet clothes had stuck to her pale skin. Her drooping eyes had shown every sign of exhaustion, every sign of her intensifying struggle to continue to live in such a tumultuous world. Yet surrounded by mothers and children frantically rushing toward their homes and artisans hurriedly packing their precious crafts, she had been surprisingly calm, even managing to smile weakly at me and bid me a safe trip home. And as I had hurried away from the market alongside the other shoppers, she had continued to stand in the eye of the storm, doing little more than flinch as her feet became submerged in the rising water.


It was then that I knew she was a warrior. A warrior of the Mumbai monsoons.

~

12 hours later

I was watching one of my favorite programs on the small old television in our living room when the screen went black and the lights flickered shut. That’s when I heard the screams.

“Pahila majala panyani bharla aahe!” The first floor is flooded! The watchman, hollering warnings to the residents of our crumbling purple apartment, could hardly be seen behind the downpour surrounding his claustrophobic outdoor cubicle. His message, however, reached us loud and clear. Sheltered in our flat on the third floor, Aai, Kamala, Kiran, and I huddled around the window, pressing our ears against the glass to hear his cries amidst the pattering rain.


We all looked at each other in alarm. Though we had enough food and water to last us through the week, our clan was one member short. What about Baba? He still hadn’t come home from his daily sail. A fisherman of nearly three decades, Baba would go out on his boat every day from dawn to dusk, sailing through the Arabian Sea in the hopes of finding even the slightest likeness of a fish to sell to support our family. Without fail, he would always come home after a long day of searching and embrace me and my two younger siblings in a hug. As the rain continued to patter on my bedroom windows, I longed for a hug. And as I peered outside at the increasingly gloomy scene, I longed for my Baba’s return.

~

1 hour later

While we waited for Baba, Aai and I lit a candle in the kitchen, turned on our single gas burner, and got to work making modaks from the coconuts and batata vadas from the potatoes that I had bought at the market. Both are traditionally made at this time of year in honor of Ganapati, our annual ritual in which we gather in prayer for a year of prosperity and success. The sweet nuttiness of the modaks and the savory zing of the vadas were our family’s way of thanking our ancestors for blessing us with good health, and I especially looked forward to bonding with Aai over our careful preparation of the food. As the winds howled around us, she and I meticulously rolled the potatoes into patties and delicately topped each rice shell with shredded coconut, jaggery, and shaved almonds. We pinched shut the tops of each modak and nestled each potato patty within a bread bun. For what must have been at least three hours, we stood quietly, side by side, and remained hard at work, trying to drown out our worries about Baba and about the increasingly loud raindrops hammering our windows. Aai must have sensed the knot in my stomach as I pinched and nestled because she finally spoke.


“Batata kay mhanala jevha phone uchalla?” What did the potato say when it answered the phone?


I didn’t know.


“Aaloo.” A word that means “potato” and sounds like “hello.”


I cracked up, and she smiled. And then we went back to work.


We pinched. We nestled. It rained.


Pinch.

Nestle.

Rain.

Repeat.

~

3 hours later

Through word of mouth from the neighbors, we learned that the city government had reopened one of the drainage systems to allow some of the water to exit the roads. Though the downpour continued, at least initiatives were finally being taken to minimize the flooding’s damage. Slowly but surely, the water levels in the first floor of our building began to recede, and a few merchants and messengers began to reenter the streets.


In focusing all of its efforts on limiting the flooding, it seemed that our government had neglected to address the condition of our city’s water delivery infrastructure – the source of another unpleasant surprise. When I turned on the faucet to wash my potato-streaked hands, out flowed a stream of brown water clouded with debris that had entered Mumbai’s centuries-old water pipes. I instantly gagged, rushing to show Aai the mud-streaked liquid covering my palms. Her eyes widened. How could we live without clean water? Kamala and Kamil were fast asleep, and all of the nearby shops had closed for the night, so Aai used a washcloth to scrub the sludge off of my hands. Feeling slightly parched but with no alternatives for what to do, I headed back to my room and curled up on my bed. I must have lain there for several hours before I finally fell asleep.

~


The Next Morning

We woke up early to the sound of alarms.


A line of trucks had arrived, each carrying hundreds of gallons of clean water for our building’s residents. Kamala, Kiran, and I all groaned as Aai rushed into the room and forced us out of bed. “Kapde ghaal,” she said. Get dressed. The four of us were to head to the trucks with the buckets in our kitchen, fill them with water, and bring them back home. Baba hadn’t yet returned, but we were to assume that he was safe. I looked at Aai with concern. How could we possibly assume that? But Aai remained firm. She told us that Baba will be fine, that his decades of experience out on the open water would have made him well accustomed to dangerous weather. Though I remained skeptical, I knew not to argue.


The four of us threw on our boots and splashed towards the trucks alongside our neighbors as the rain continued to fall. One by one, we filled our buckets with water until the weight of the buckets formed red imprints and blisters on our arms. We then trudged back to the apartment, inevitably sloshing water on our clothes and faces as mosquitoes buzzed around us. I flinched. Kiran had gotten malaria last year when an infected mosquito bit him as he was walking home from school in the puddles created by the monsoons. I still remember seeing him the morning he was diagnosed, my mouth agape at the sight of his yellowed skin and at his inability to walk even two steps without collapsing to the ground. Little did I want to experience the same illness that appeared to be infecting increasing numbers of people in Mumbai. I swatted at the insects and hurried home.

~

4 hours later

Finally, we heard a knocking on the door. Baba! The four of us leapt from the battered couch in our living room and raced each other to the door. Kamala got there first and yanked it open. Over a day after not seeing him, and there he stood, drenched in rain and sweat. Looking down at his legs, I sucked in a deep breath. Both of his knees had large gashes on them, blood slowly trickling down to his ankles.


“Baba!,” we all cried in unison and embraced him. Even bleeding and soaking wet, he gave us one of his beloved Baba hugs. As Aai sat him down and got to work cleaning his wounds, he filled us in on everything that had happened. He had managed to bring his boat to shore at the Juhu Beach, but while walking home a young tree had fallen on him due to the strong winds. Unable to move or make his shouts heard over the rain, he remained stuck under the tree for nearly fifteen hours until a group of villagers found him. Listening to Baba’s story, Kiran, Kamala, and I looked at each other in fear. Baba, our Baba, had spent nearly half a day injured and alone in the rain. Had the city not reopened the drainage pipes before his accident, he may well have drowned. Thinking back to the events of the past day, I shuddered and hugged him even tighter.

~

1 hour later

Normally we refrained from venturing outside during the heavy rains, but Aai had to send me on an emergency run to the pharmacy to buy ointments for Baba. On the way there, I passed what was now a largely deserted Santa Cruz West Market and spotted a single woman standing on the road with a folding table and a torn cardboard sign. My eyebrows rose. It was the same woman from yesterday morning. Once again, she stood behind her booth of potatoes and coconuts as her body became soaked in water and her hair swayed vigorously with the wind. Yet somehow, even with no other artisans or farmers in sight, she continued to brave a smile. A smile that I could see even from afar. A smile that pierced through the roar of the thunderclouds and the shrieking winds. And as I saw her eyes twinkle in the rain, I came to an eye-opening realization.


We had candles and flashlights.

We had buckets of clean water to drink.

Baba was alive.

I knew deep down that in the coming years the monsoons would only continue to worsen, and that the prospect of financial security was slowly slipping away from my family’s reach. But I couldn’t let myself think about that. Not now. Not ever. This was the time of year to celebrate all that we had and hope for future success. So perhaps, like the woman, I needed to put on a smile. Not to make the rain go away, but to make the monsoons a little more bearable. To make trudging through the water every day a little bit easier. To make my family’s chances of prosperity a little bit brighter.


Then maybe, just maybe, I could become just like her.


A warrior of the Mumbai monsoons.


Explanation of the Story

“The Warrior of the Mumbai Monsoons” features both fictional and nonfictional elements that, together, share a story about one family’s struggle to navigate the heavy rainfall that pervades their homeland. Wanting to write about a part of the world that hardly resembles the droughts in my home state of Texas, I chose to explore Mumbai because of the intimate connection that my family has with the city. My parents are originally from Mumbai, and my grandparents and most of my cousins still live there to this day. For this reason, I have spent many of my summers abroad in Mumbai, during the months when monsoons are particularly devastating for farmers, small business owners, and families alike. While there, I have witnessed firsthand the destruction that can result from continued heavy rainfall: The lack of proper drainage systems often causes endless inches of water to accumulate on the streets, forcing the vendors at the Santa Cruz West Market (one of my favorite places in the city!) to reduce their hours or close down their booths altogether. This, combined with a lack of flood-friendly buildings and durable water pipes, makes it incredibly difficult for locals to maintain good health and hygiene, support their families, and practice the annual Ganapati rituals that have been ingrained into Maharashtrian culture. As I continue to witness these issues year after year, I have realized the alarming extent to which the monsoons threaten people’s way of life – as well as the hopeful mindset with which certain individuals respond to the heavy rains. These are all stories that I wanted to share with the world, and they quickly became the focus of this creative piece.

Aside from weaving in my personal observations of the Mumbai monsoons, this story also draws on the experiences that my parents had while growing up in India. During Ganapati one year, the rains were so heavy that the first floor of my mother’s apartment building flooded completely, leaving my mother and her family trapped in their third floor flat with no clean drinking water or electricity. When the flooding in the first floor finally receded, my mother and her brother had to drag clean water up to their apartment in buckets. The entire city of Mumbai (then called Bombay) went on lockdown for two days and citywide Ganapati celebrations were canceled, forcing people to practice the holiday’s rituals alone rather than with extended family or friends. Though my father’s story isn’t nearly as extreme, he also had a unique perspective on the monsoons: Much like the narrator’s brother Kamil, my father got infected with malaria at a young age while playing outside during monsoon season. He described the experience as painful and nearly life-threatening, explaining that continued flooding and poor drainage systems create breeding grounds for mosquitoes that inevitably hospitalize hundreds like him each year.

Together, all of these experiences helped shape the narrative of this story. Of course, not all elements of the story – such as the fisherman father and the woman selling potatoes and coconuts at the Santa Cruz West Market – resemble reality. However, these are two key details that instill hope in readers: The woman remained determined to sell her products even despite the surrounding heavy rains and frantic vendors, and the father displayed an unwavering commitment to support his family and to get home to his children. Both of these individuals shared something that many readers may currently lack but will increasingly need: resilience. In a world where sea levels are only rising, wildfires are only spreading, and droughts are only worsening, our inner strength may be our greatest ally as we learn to adapt to extreme environments.

I chose to tell this tale in the form of a story so that I could give readers an intimate view of the narrator’s weekend while also painting a vivid picture of the world in which she lived and shopped. Additionally, I wanted to educate readers on the cultural significance of Ganapati and the difficulties that present themselves when monsoons stretch into the later months of the year. In this particular story, I also included bits and pieces of my native language, Marathi, as well as occasional dialogue to showcase the interactions between characters in a way that simultaneously highlighted their culture. However, for the most part I focused on the narrator’s thoughts and experiences in an attempt to fully flesh out the challenges – both internal and external – faced by residents in Mumbai during monsoon season. In doing so, I aimed to bring to light the dire living conditions that prolonged heavy rainfall can cause, and to encourage readers to recognize the importance of responding effectively to global climate issues. As evident in the presence of continued rainfall despite the woman’s smiles and the father’s return, resilience alone will certainly not solve the climate crisis. However, I hope that “The Warrior of the Mumbai Monsoons” showed readers that it might just be the missing piece we need to face the consequences of a changing planet.

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